Senegal: A Model Democracy in Crisis

The recent political crisis in Senegal is amplified by the stature its democratic history has in the region. Alongside Cape Verde, it is one of the only two countries in West Africa to have never had a successful military coup d’état. But the recent debacle following President Macky Sall’s postponement of the scheduled 25th February elections already compounds a region desperately in need for positive democratic examples.


A Series of Unfortunate Events

Senegal has historically been a bastion of stable democracy in the region. This impression has been supported by long-term leaders in Leopold Sedar Senghor (20 years) and Abdou Diouf (19 years). A 2001 constitutional amendment limited presidential terms to two, but Abdoulaye Wade, who succeeded Diouf, sought a third term in the 2012 elections despite protests and violence that only abated when he lost the runoff elections to Macky Sall. Citizens placed their trust in Sall, a former president of the national assembly and prime minister who led an opposition coalition. His victory came after assurances that he would reduce the presidential term to five years from the seven that Wade had controversially increased it to and that he would enforce a two-term limit. This pledge was repeatedly cited during the 2023 protests that trailed suspicion that Sall would seek a third term, after his supporters argued that constitutionally changing the term of office (after a first term of seven years) made him eligible for another term of five years. The protests only ended when he announced he would not seek a third term.


Sall’s looming influence on the electoral process has plagued the election campaign cycle, especially with recurring fears that he could attempt to extend his term or even avert opponents from gaining power. Frontline opposition leaders were eventually disqualified from running. These included Karim Wade, son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, because of uncertainty over when he renounced his French citizenship owing to laws disqualifying dual nationals from becoming president. It also included Ousmane Sonko, prominent opposition leader who finished third in 2019 and was jailed for a crime that ruled him ineligible to run for office – a situation many believe was politically motivated. The removal of these major candidates led to increased agitation that the elections were set up to support Amadou Ba, the serving prime minister and Sall’s handpicked successor, who is relatively unpopular and was accused of bribing judges to remove Wade from the list of official candidates. 


The alleged bribery charge was the major justification used by Sall on 3 February when, hours to the commencement of campaigns, he ordered the indefinite postponement of elections citing a parliamentary investigation, and at some point suggesting 15 December. Because the law states that 80 days must pass between the decree setting the date of the election and the election itself, the earliest the election could then be held would be late April. This situation led to more protests especially since Sall’s term, originally set to end on 2 April, was expected to get extended. Protests followed the announcement and riot police were deployed to disperse demonstrators. Internet access was cut off on 5 February, to avert the dissemination of ‘hate and subversive messages’, but the impression of a government fighting its own citizens was clear. This  malaise was further reinforced with the unfortunate deaths of at least three protesters and a heated parliamentary session that saw opposition members forcefully removed from the floor. The approval of the postponement by the National Assembly led to further protests and calls from domestic and international groups for the government to resolve the crisis.


A partial resolution came via the Constitutional Council on 15 February, when it ruled that the postponement was unconstitutional and ordered President Sall to set a new date as soon as possible. Sall announced he would comply with the decision and affirmed that he would leave office at the expiration of his term on 2 April, with a recommendation by a national dialogue commission setting the elections for 2 June, before a recent confirmation that the elections would be held on 24 March


A Tainted Legacy

Senegalese citizens, many of whom risked their lives to protest the unnecessary postponement, have shown their strong pride in their uninterrupted democracy. But the truth is that the situation and response have raised questions that might take a while to answer.


Firstly, there will be questions asked of Sall, whose legacy is surely now tainted by a move that can only be described as a last-minute power grab. This was a president already associated with several scandals and forced to deny a third term bid. Arbitrarily postponing the elections was a move that many have rightly criticised for its undue disruption. The proposed national dialogue that was meant to ensure a united response to the mess he made was largely ignored by many candidates on the ballot. For a president whose victory ended protests in 2012, that his actions have led to similar marches is an unfortunate bookend to what could have been a strong term. Furthermore, even if many sift through the rumours of Paris endorsing the move to ensure a favourable ally in Dakar, such actions are unlikely to endear citizens to anyone associated with Sall.


Secondly, there will be questions asked of how the regional bloc appears to have handled this situation. ECOWAS convened an emergency session of its foreign ministers on 8 February and deployed a diplomatic mission on 12 February in a bid to encourage one of its more stable states to avoid the action. Yet in what has rightly been called a ‘constitutional coup’, there will be comparisons made with the way the bloc responded to the 2023 coup in Niger. The strict sanctions caused a difficult economic downturn in Niger, as well as Burkina Faso and Mali, and eventually led to the formation of the Alliance of Sahel States and the decision of the three states to withdraw from the bloc. ECOWAS has since announced a lifting of the sanctions, but the regional body will need to make a firm decision on how it chooses to interact with attempted extensions or unconstitutional processes. Examples include controversial third term bids for Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara and Guinean President Alpha Conde, who himself got deposed in a coup. When ECOWAS was formed in 1975, five of the member states – including major co-founders Nigeria and Togo – were under military rulers. There have also only been four years, between 2016 and 2019, when no member state was under military rule. Applying a red line in the sand could work, but a comparison with democratically elected leaders seeking to abuse policies needs to be considered.


Thirdly, and perhaps most concerningly, is what this means for the wider region and precedence for what is already a sensitive democratic period. Alongside Senegal, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania are also scheduled to conduct elections this year. Burkina Faso and Mali already announced postponements to their polls, with no plans on a return to democracy in these states as well as in Guinea and Niger. The example of the region’s first elections, and in one of its more model democracies, going awry means that democracy facing institutions will need to be more active to deter potential upheavals elsewhere. While there is no clear correlation between flawed elections and successful coups, recent polling suggests increasing tolerance for military intervention if elected officials abuse power. It will require active diplomatic backchannelling, as well as increased advocacy, to avoid future coups.


For all the concern about Senegal’s democracy, this situation has shown the utility of strong institutions. The Constitutional Council was able to push back on the arbitrary move despite the support of the president and a majority of his allies in parliament. It reinforces the need for independent institutions in safeguarding democracies. The situation also shows the need for civil society and advocacy groups to remain vigilant and observant, and the power of citizen movements in democratic states. In a year of elections, with possible entropy as a result, this could make the difference between a growing democracy and a failed one.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development. 

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